The Scoop on 5 Popular Back Pain Products

Plenty of products claim to provide fast back pain relief. Here’s what experts say about which claims hold up.

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When back pain wakes you up at night, or stops you in your tracks during the day, you need fast relief. What can you do besides take a pill?

Plenty of back pain products claim they can help. Unfortunately, most gadgets you’ll find online – even the expensive ones – won’t provide much back pain relief (if any).

Best back pain productsWhich back pain products hold up?

To help you make smart decisions about which back pain gadgets to try, SpineUniverse turned to medical studies as well as back pain expert Reginald Knight, MD, director of the Bassett Spine Care Institute in Cooperstown, NY.  (Spoiler alert: You won’t have to spend a lot of money to get back pain relief.)

1. Posture trainers

Posture trainerMore high-tech posture trainers exist, but do they work?

What they are:

Wearable sensors that vibrate when you slouch 

Pain-relief claim:

Slouching can strain your back. Improving your posture can help prevent strain and pain.

The verdict:

Pass on this trendy gadget if your goal is back pain relief.

“The process of slouching places abnormal stresses on structures of the lower back, which can lead to strains and eventual back pain,” Dr. Knight says. But he is skeptical of a device that constantly reminds you to sit or stand up straight. “It may cause you to hold yourself in an abnormal position for extended periods of time, causing even more problems.”

If you think you have poor posture that contributes to back pain, try these science-backed strategies:

  • Exercise, particularly moves that strengthen your core
  • Wear comfortable shoes with low heels
  • Keep your head level

Dr. Knight adds that if you exhibit frequent poor posture, “consult your physician to ensure there is not a structural issue.”

2. High-tech TENS unit

TENS unitIf you use a TENS unit too often it might not work as well.

What it is:

QUELL is a new brand of TENS (transcutaneous electrical stimulation) unit that you wear on your calf.

Pain-relief claim:

Safe electrical pulses trigger a natural pain relief response.

The verdict:

QUELL may help – just like most other TENS units may help.

TENS units activate opioid nerve receptors, which is one reason they provide pain relief. You can get them for under $50 at many drug stores. Quell, which operates on the same TENS principle – even though it is worn on the calf, instead of applied directly to sore spots – costs about $300.  

With any TENS unit, be aware that you may build up a tolerance to the relief. “In general, I think TENS units work fairly well, but I believe that they’re best used in a physical therapist’s office because a person can become habituated to them,” Dr. Knight says.  

 

3. Percussive Massager

What it is:

A handheld massager that applies pulses of deep pressure (strong vibrations)  

Pain-relief claim:

It’s similar to a deep tissue massage that relaxes away pain.

The verdict:

Save your money for a real massage.

Limited research on these products suggests that percussive/vibrating massage tools, which can cost hundreds of dollars, may be slightly better than traditional massage at relieving muscle soreness. Typically, though, that’s an issue for athletes.

A high-force massager might do more harm than good for a range of back problems outside of muscle soreness. However, in a physical therapy setting, some research suggests that vibration applied to the back may be useful in a physical therapy setting for chronic low-back pain.

4. Low Level Laser Light Therapy

What it is:

Low-intensity light therapy is thought to trigger biochemical changes in the cells (so the effect is photochemical, not thermal).

Pain-Relief claim:

Reduces inflammation, promotes pain relief, promotes healing

The verdict:

There isn’t strong evidence that it helps back pain.

That doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from the treatment. Limited research suggests that laser light therapy, which is sometimes performed in physical therapy and chiropractic offices, can provide relief for a range of conditions, including back pain.

5. Low-tech massage tools

Foam rollersSometimes simple solutions can outperform high-tech options.

What they are:

Foam rollers, lacrosse balls, etc.

Pain-relief claim:

They provide a mini-massage for sore muscles.

The verdict:

Give 'em a try.

There isn’t a lot published science on the benefits of rolling your body across a ball, but physical therapists have recommended this trick for years. Dr. Knight also agrees that low-tech massage tools can make your back feel better short-term.

“They can be effective for muscle spasms,” he says. “Gentle soft tissue massage provided by these simple devices can improve blood flow with minimal risk of deep tissue damage.”

Another low-tech tool Dr. Knight likes: a simple exercise ball, also known as a Pilates ball, gym ball, or Swiss ball. “Balls of this nature can be incorporated in exercise programs that function in both extension and flexion postures,” he says. You can also sit on them to safely engage and strengthen your core muscles.

 

Updated on: 04/27/20
Reginald Q. Knight, MD, MHA
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